Welcome to From the Gut – a weekly freestyle of random fantasy baseball analysis and thought. The topics will vary from week to week, but the overall gist will be a reflection of musings ranging from player strategy to game theory and during the preseason, some draft strategy and ADP valuation. All will be colored in the context and hue of the high-stakes NFBC market.
Since I’ll be a big part of your fantasy success this year and you’ll hopefully be reading this each week, I wanted to kick off this first column with a bit of my background so you understand what fuels my passion for fantasy baseball.
I’m a product of Russian immigrants from Moscow, came to the U.S. when I was three months old (born on the way in Rome, Italy) and grew up playing ice hockey (as all good Russian kids are supposed to). But I flipped the script on the fam at an early age with a sport they did not understand when I discovered baseball and trading cards. I became obsessed with memorizing stats on the back of baseball cards at an early age, would update MLB stat leaders daily from the newspaper and watched all the Dodgers and Angels baseball games I could when not in the classroom or on the ice. Most of you who love fantasy baseball as much as I do have a similar story.
To this day, my most memorable baseball-related moment was that Game 1 winning slam by Kirk Gibson off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series. I was nine years old at the time, and, sadly, that’s the last time the Dodgers celebrated a world title. Since my dad didn’t understand the game of baseball (as was the case with most European immigrants), I did not own a ball, bat or mitt and did not play catch with him in the yard. Thankfully, my father had an older colleague/friend in the dental industry here in Los Angeles, as it turned out, he played college ball at UCLA with Jackie Robinson! A great man who passed away about a decade ago (Dr. William Frank) would play catch with me, take me to Dodger games and teach me about the game. Between collecting baseball cards, poring over stats and time spent with Dr. Frank, baseball wasn’t just a hobby, it was a way of life and a quickly-growing obsession.
I started playing fantasy in the mid-90’s (in high school) and began to take it a bit more seriously after my senior year of college. A friend of mine named Steve Zacks introduced me to a salary cap-style game called the CDM Diamond Challenge (essentially, it’s the season-long game that DFS’s roots are based in). Steve and I picked our initial team in 2002, and during the season, picked up a third-year pitcher at minimum salary named Johan Santana. Santana helped propel us from somewhere ranked around 1,500 out of 12,000 teams, all the way to fourth overall and we ended up splitting a five-figure check. Much needed money for kids barely out of college.
I continued to play, and play the format well, turning a substantial profit most years. The CDM Diamond Challenge is the game I credit as being instrumental in fine-tuning my fantasy skills early on. In fact, the Diamond Challenge still exists and is a product offered as part of the NFBC family. I’ll probably write a strategy column on it near the end of February.
In fact, we can thank CDM (and Fanball, a company our very own Ray Flowers was employed by at the time) for helping save fantasy sports. No joke! Many may not know this, but the infamous CDM vs MLBAM (MLB Advanced Media) lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court. Essentially, the player associations of MLB and other pro leagues argued that using player names and stats in relation to fantasy sports were subject to egregious licensing fees. MLBAM fought hard to take away the rights of fantasy companies using players’ names, their likenesses and their accompanying statistics in fantasy sports.
Luckily for us, the Supreme Court did not overturn an older ruling and sided with the fantasy sports industry. Many of us folks who have been around for a ‘minute’ are thankful to the likes of Carol Matthews (CDM founder), Charlie Wiegert (CDM co-founder and my partner in the FSTA experts draft), the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), and of course, all the lawyers involved.
The unique upside-down message board/forum for the Diamond Challenge (known as the BBS) is where I’d spend good chunks of my ‘work’ day circa 2003 to 2010 – arguing about who the better play was that week between Grady Sizemore and Carlos Beltran with a few dozen other fantasy baseball fanatics. My ‘Twitter’ before Twitter. The BBS was where I met many of the people I call good friends today (both fantasy writers/analysts and high-stakes players). I followed their lead and started playing in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) in those $350-entry leagues and was enamored instantly. I had my ass kicked that first season, but slowly learned the nuances of the format. In 2009, my buddy Scott Jenstad and I drove out to Las Vegas for my first ever live draft (NFBC Main Event).
The NFBC Main Event (15-team draft with an overall component) knocked the cockiness out of me almost immediately. Not only at the draft table when I was running out of viable options by the 25th round, but also getting outbid in weekly FAAB (free agent bidding) and at the end of the season when I looked up at 13 teams above me in the league standings. The reality check playing with the best of the best truly humbled me, firing up my competitiveness further and helped instill some of the preseason practices I have in place today.
Beyond simply studying advanced stats, depth charts and the massive player pool, I learned to trust my gut more (hence, my Twitter handle, @RotoGut). After all, I watched a lot of baseball and researched stats daily. Trusting my initial instinct at the draft table, in FAAB or with weekly lineup decisions helped build up my confidence playing with the big boys and allowed me to cut out a lot of extra time I’d spend hemming and hawing over the most minute details and decisions.
Much of what has made me competitive in high stakes and what I’ve learned over the last decade is about identifying market inefficiencies. By that, I mean spotting undervalued hitters and pitchers at the draft or recognizing and bidding on a reliever a week before he goes for crazy amount of FAAB money once he’s been named a team’s closer. After all, fantasy baseball is simply a more fun version of the stock market where the gains and benefits aren’t all monetary. Our great hobby brings us all together and encourages camaraderie (whether that’s on the BBS, Twitter or in person at a draft in Vegas), challenges us, entertains us and even sharpens our critical thinking skills. Most of all, it’s gratifying and fun!
Next week, I’d like to get right into the weeds and discuss some NFBC ADP risers and fallers from January and provide some tips for those of you interested in jumping in on some early, February drafts. The opportunity to play and write about a hobby that has become a big part of my life from a young age is a dream come true in every way. Hoping this trip through my own life brings out some meaningful memories in yours. It’s going to be a fun season and I look forward to this ride with you all through the 2019 season. After all. We’ve got league titles to win.
Vlad is one of the world's top high-stakes fantasy baseball players. A CDM Sports Hall of Famer, Vlad won the Super Challenge in 2013, has won over 30 high-stakes baseball titles and has qualified for DFS live final events. He has been writing about fantasy sports since 2010, playing since 1995 and is a former H2H champ of the Tout Wars industry experts league.